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Improving economic fortunes in the Route 30/100 corridor

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2013-11-11

TOWNSHEND -- With a limitless amount of ideas, town officials and business owners jumped at the chance to spark conversation regarding opportunities within the West River Valley.

"It's going to take folks lining up together and saying, 'How do we add up in a really meaningful way?'" said Executive Director of the Vermont Council on Rural Development Paul Costello.

On Nov. 7, people from Newfane, Townshend, Jamaica and other areas along Route 30 and 100 gathered at the Townshend Town Offices in support of an event that would attempt to create a critical mass for business interests and organize goals that will potentially improve the economic fortunes along that corridor.

The meeting was put together by members of the Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation and Windham Regional Commission with the goal of coming up with actionable projects for the short and long term. At other community discussions following Tropical Storm Irene, it had been voiced that there was a general lack of connection and critical mass for business interests.

"We heard businesses up and down the corridor were hurting and feeling kind of alone," said BDCC Director of Economic Development Laura Sibilia. "We started looking at what opportunities there were to collaborate and what to accomplish."

Sibilia is active in the Southern Vermont Economic Development Strategies group, or SeVEDS, which is currently putting together a list of countywide projects for a federally ascribed document known as the Comprehensive Economic Develops Strategy.

Costello told the crowd that there are tremendous assets in the West River Valley and noted the large amount of business owners in attendance. He asked to hear about the strengths of the corridor and region.

The list included the fall foliage, being the only way to Stratton from the south, authentic villages, reasonable access from metropolitan areas and plenty more.

"We have the governor being from this area who wants to do things for us," said one man.

Costello mentioned the diversity among the businesses and their creative energy after they had introduced themselves.

Some of the challenges of the corridor included lack of cell service, inn closures, little or no accessibility to public transportation, lack of public restrooms, aging demographics and low paying jobs.

"It's not a full year of tourism," said one attendee. "You have these gaps in between."

Others agreed that their businesses depended upon Mount Snow and Stratton to bring visitors to the region.

Potential opportunities included having more higher education classes available in the region, adding more bike and walking paths, increasing marketing and establishing networks for matching venues with people who want to rent those facilities. People mentioned pooling money together for marketing efforts.

WRC Executive Director Chris Campany spoke of the mountains and trails that weren't currently being marketed.

"We're a great gateway to the Green Mountain forests," he said.

Before breaking off into separate groups to discuss potential ideas, Costello said he had a feeling that there was not "a lot that's already tied together."

"There's no chamber of commerce, no institutional backbone. You have separate townships but it's not the selectboards' jobs to figure out how to market and get the towns together," he added.

The Brattleboro, Londonderry and Manchester area chambers have members on both sides of the corridor.

After the three groups discussed ideas, attendees voted according to what they saw as priorities.

When they returned to their seats, Costello announced the top choices: Establishing a marketing organization or concentrated task force and updating signage and zoning. There also was a major interest for developing a corridor discussion around infrastructure for cell service and possibly asking the Vermont Telecommunications Authority to assist.

In closing, Costello advocated for the power of democracy.

"Getting things to happen doesn't just happen," he said. "But if you line up around one thing, you build all this momentum that transfers to other areas."

Attendees were asked to add their names to sign-up sheets for specific projects that the BDCC and WRC will facilitate and organize the start up of meetings.

"Campany can help a group get practical quick," said Costello.

Sibilia added that the number of names will determine the pace of the project.

"This is yours to own," said BDCC Director of Workforce Development Patricia Moulton Powden. "Why have past efforts failed? It was a grant funded or organization that came and went. If it's going to be sustainable, it's going to be you who owns it. We can't do it for you."

Chris Mays can be reached at 802-254-2311, ext. 273, or cmays@reformer.com. Follow Chris on Twitter @CMaysReformer.